Nora Roberts Miller, president of Mississippi University for Women, speaks to the media about the school’s opposition to a legislative bill suggesting the university be merged with Mississippi State University, on the steps of the Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson, Miss., on Tuesday, March 12, 2024. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

A shock bill to merge the Mississippi University for Women with another public institution was narrowly defeated in the Senate Wednesday by 27 lawmakers, including the Republican from Columbus.

The sponsor of Senate Bill 2715, Sen. Dennis DeBar, R-Leakesville, asked lawmakers to essentially defang his bill by stripping it of the merger idea and turning it into a request for the legislative watchdog to study the feasibility of MUW and the Mississippi School for Math and Science, a residential high school for academically inclined juniors and seniors.

“I’m just curious, not that it’s required, but has the administration of MUW and MSMS been informed of today’s proposal?” Sen. Angela Turner-Ford, D-West Point, asked.

“Of this proposal? Not this proposal, no,” DeBar replied.

When the bill went to a vote, lawmakers technically voted against the feasibility study, but any effort associated with the bill was killed. Since the vote was so close, the Senate could reconsider the bill before Thursday’s deadline.

DeBar said the amendment was a necessary change to his legislation because another bill that the Senate advanced yesterday, which would create a task force to study the “efficiency” of Mississippi’s eight public univerisites, was not guaranteed to pass.

In a statement, MUW’s president, Nora Miller, said she was looking forward to working to help MSMS secure funding to renovate its dormitories.

Senate Appropriations Committee member Dennis DeBar Jr., R-Leakesville, outlines proposed legislation to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) and inject an additional $181.1 million into school budgets, during a meeting of the committee Monday, March 6, 2023, at the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis) Credit: AP

“We are relieved that we can return our focus to carrying out our mission, growing our enrollment and working with MSMS to get the funding to address their facility needs as part of our campus master plan,” Miller said.

DeBar’s original bill sought to relocate the MSMS to the campus of Mississippi State University. Since MSMS opened in 1988, it has been located on MUW’s campus.

But shortly before the committee deadline last week, DeBar dropped a surprise substitute to his bill, one that would have resulted in MUW becoming the first public university in Mississippi to merge with another institution. Mississippi State, and its powerful president, Mark Keenum, would take control.

MUW alumni wrote op-eds and campaigned against DeBar’s proposal. Miller, who used to be MUW’s chief financial officer and an auditor for the Institutions of Higher Learning, said the school is in solid financial health.

“We vehemently deny any rumor or speculation” the university is at risk of closure, Miller told Mississippi Today on Wednesday.

DeBar’s bill came on the heels of a failed effort by MUW to change its named to “Wynbridge State University of Mississippi.” Legislation to do that was proposed by Rep. Donnie Scoggin, R-Ellisville, the chair of the House Colleges and Universities Committee, but never made it to the floor.

That campaign, DeBar told Mississippi Today before Wednesday’s vote, seemed to decrease public confidence in MUW’s leadership, but it was not an impetus of his bill. He also said he had heard concerning stories about the state of the facilities at MSMS. The high school has requested $51 million to renovate the dorms.

On the floor, Sen. Chuck Younger, R-Columbus, commended DeBar for his dedication to improving education in Missisippi, calling DeBar’s efforts “beyond greatness.” DeBar is the chair of the Senate Education Committee.

“I appreciate your hard work, but bigger isn’t always better sometimes,” Younger said before voting against the bill. “I love Mississippi State, but I love the W, so it’s a hard situation for me to be in, but anyway my hat’s off to you.”

DeBar responded by acknowledging the tough situation Younger was in and added that he just wanted to help the bright students at MSMS. He noted he had no complaints with MUW’s administration but that it was still important to gather data on the situation.

“If the report comes back and says we need to upgrade the W, upgrade MSMS where they’re located, so be it, I’ll be the champion, obviously,” he said.

Yesterday, the Senate advanced a bill from Sen. Nicole Boyd, R-Oxford, to create a task force to study “efficiency” in the state’s public university system. Boyd has said the goal of the task force is to help the universities weather the impending decline in the number of high school graduates going to college in Mississippi, and she has held a hearing on the topic.

Several lawmakers voiced concern the bill was a trap-door attempt to close universities, particularly the three smallest institutions by enrollment: MUW, Delta State University and Mississippi Valley State University.

Boyd denied this.

“We as a legislative body can stick our heads in the ground and continue to let these universities fail, or we can actually step up and do something about it,” she said. “If you want things to remain the same, if you want to see some of these universities with continuing declining populations, then you vote no on this bill. But if you want to see this system grow, if you want to see our universities prosper, then you vote yes on this bill.”

UPDATE 3/13/24: This story has been updated to clarify the Senate vote.

UPDATE 3/14/24: This story has been updated to correct which universities have the lowest enrollment.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.